Ordinarily, when a modern White House is facing serious scandals, a president’s team will take proactive steps to prepare its allies. Officials in the West Wing realize that the media – and the public at large – will ask questions about ongoing controversies, so the White House will prepare talking points, host messaging calls, and brief lawmakers and like-minded pundits so that everyone is on the same page.
Except, that’s not what’s happening now. As Donald Trump faces fire on multiple fronts, including being directly implicated by federal prosecutors in a felony, his team isn’t doing much of anything. Officials in the president’s orbit don’t see much of a point.
“A war room? You serious?” one former White House official told the Washington Post when asked about internal preparations. “They’ve never had one, will never have one. They don’t know how to do one.”
The result is an awkward dynamic: a bunch of Republicans are running around trying to defend Trump, but they’re not at all sure what they’re supposed to say. The result is a cringe-worthy mess: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, is equating the president’s alleged misdeeds with misfiled paperwork, while Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is arguing that he simply doesn’t care whether Trump broke the law or not.
This defense wasn’t much better.
“These guys were all new to this at the time,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said of the Trump campaign team. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues. In many cases, campaigns end up paying fines and penalties.”
Oh. So, Donald Trump directed his personal attorney to silence alleged former mistresses shortly before the election, and the lawyer created a shell company to make illegal hush-money payments to a porn star. Everyone involved then lied about it in the hopes of covering up what had transpired.
This unfolded, the incoming Senate majority whip believes, because “these guys were all new to this at the time” – as if they had no idea their actions were wrong.
Part of the problem with the defense is that’s factually incorrect. Trump may be a political amateur, but “these guys” who helped oversee his 2016 campaign included plenty of political veterans – Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, Paul Manafort, Cambridge Analytica, et al – who’d been through plenty of campaigns and who knew where the legal lines were. Trump chose his own course, which allegedly included illegal acts.
For that matter, as federal prosecutor in New York argued in their court filing on Friday, Michael Cohen knew what his actions were illegal, but he executed his scheme anyway.
But I’m also struck by the frequency with which Republicans roll out the argument that Trump and his team are just ignorant and inexperienced rookies, as if this were a compelling excuse for their transgressions.
It’s really not.